A short protest story

‘Children of the Sea’, by Edwidge Danticat

Read it here in about 30 minutes.

In relation to the 2022 Winter Olympics, thinking about how we can use literature to protest…

Danticat was born in Haiti, to Haitian parents, but later became an American citizen. Her short stories (I haven’t read any of her novels) generally focus on the experiences of Haitian women in Haiti, and the first and second generation Haitians in diaspora who live in the US. This story protests the political turmoil in Haiti that has resulted, over the years, in thousands of people fleeing persecution, imprisonment, and death, on unsafe boats, hoping to reach the US. It protests this by humanising, and making readers aware of, a situation that Westerners (especially those of us in Europe, like myself) may be ignorant of. The story is also extremely relevant in the UK right now, as for the past several years thousands of refugees from North Africa and the Middle East have drowned in the British Channel trying to make it to England.

The story takes the form of love letters, written by two characters who have been torn apart by the political situation: a young man, who is fleeing because his political dissent has made him a target; and his lover, a young woman who is remaining with her family, for safety. Some people have criticised the story for being saccharine, but I think the whole point is the heartache of being oceans away from the people you love, and not knowing what’s happening to them, or when/if you’ll see them again, so, for me, foregrounding the love story is effective.

This is my favourite story of Danticat’s, for several reasons. I love the imagery (‘I see you crying like a crushed snail’ / ‘I feel like I can just reach out and pull a star down from the sky as though it is a breadfruit’); the way the two characters have such distinct voices, shown through the woman’s use of French, lack of capitalisation, and short sentences, in contrast to the man’s more educated and poetic prose (haiti est comme tu l’as laisse. yes, just the way you left it’ / ‘The mermaids were dancing and singing in Latin like the priests do at the cathedral during Mass’); how their letters echo each other, despite not having been sent (‘They say behind the mountains are more mountains. Now I know it’s true’ / ‘behind these mountains are more mountains and more black butterflies still’); and how the woman knows what has happened to her lover, thanks to Haitian superstition (‘butterflies can bring news. the bright ones bring happy news and the black ones warn us of deaths’ / ‘and then there it was, the black butterfly floating around us. i began to run and run so it wouldn’t land on me, but it had already carried its news’).

Mostly, I love this story because it breaks my heart every time I read it, which makes me feel human.

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